With ESSEC Knowledge Editor-in-chief
With the world abuzz about the “Great Resignation” and organizations trying to fill positions, job-seekers are at an advantage - and employers need to make themselves competitive. Employees today are looking for more than a job - they want a career, and a career tailored to their life plan. This is where the concept of the “customized workplace” comes in, first introduced by Hamid Bouchikhi of ESSEC Business School and John R. Kimberly of the Wharton School. This refers to letting employees take the reins and tailor their job - within reason. It has benefits for the employee, who will enjoy the benefits of this flexibility, and the organization, who will enjoy the benefits of employee satisfaction and increased retention.
A paradigm shift: putting employees in the driver’s seat
Management styles have changed over the years, with 21st century management recognizing that the needs of the individual must be met and that employees need to have a say in work decisions. Now, individuals have more control over their work life, including aspects like choosing their employer, when and where to work, and career planning - options that weren’t as available to workers 100 years ago. This is the basis of the customized workplace, which must balance the needs of the individual with the needs of the firm.
In a customized workplace, the employee is an entrepreneur - but instead of running a business, they’re running their own professional life, in a type of “life-entrepreneurship”. They are involved in planning their current and future work and have a strategic life plan.
This kind of organization relies on a number of principles, including:
● Recognizing people’s differences
● Confidence and trust in one another
● Active listening
● Mutual commitment and accountability
● Making management into a relationship between adults, rather than one where one individual is “superior” to the other
These lend themselves to a more horizontal hierarchical structure, as fits the 21st century, since people increasingly resent vertical structures and institutions. Instead, management becomes a contract between two adults with shared trust and psychological safety - not unlike a relationship.
The three spheres of the customized workplace
People know that there is a deal between the organization and the individual- it’s less the organization dictating to the individual these days, but it goes both ways.
How? This is where this model comes from. We can separate the customized workplace into three spheres:
○ In this sphere, employers don’t have any wiggle room, and employee behavior is regulated by management. This often includes elements like the worksite, rules and procedures, salary or any other aspects of work where employee choice is not possible.
Choosing from a menu
○ In this sphere, employees can choose, but they’re given a menu to choose from. Today, many organizations offer employees flexible work schemes to choose from. Others go as far as to allow employees to choose a compensation package from a menu.
○ For many organizations, it’s a big step to push more elements from the first sphere to the second - the more progressive organizations will go even further and push more “things”’ to the third sphere.
○ Here, the employee is free to act as they please. An example is if an organization doesn’t have an official vacation policy, so employees can take a break whenever they need to. Another example is letting employees decide if they want to work from home or at the office every day, rather than having a fixed policy.
Organizations will increasingly move more matters to the discretionary sphere, even though it’s easier for managers to have everything in the first sphere. This goes back to the concept of the life/self-entrepreneur: people have a lot more choice in all areas of their lives, so this is the necessary response in the world of work to this sociological trend.
What are the advantages for employees? For organizations?
There’s been a mindset shift over the course of the last few years, with the pandemic acting as a catalyst. More than ever, people are looking for meaningful, flexible work, such as remote work and the ability to set their own hours. The mindset shift required to foster a customizable workplace also requires recognizing that people bring their whole selves to work. They don’t check their worries and their personalities at the front desk in the morning - in this paradigm, they can bring their authentic selves to work.
Fulfilled employees, happy employers: this can benefit the organization too, as it will help them attract and retain talent by offering unique, tantalizing work conditions. This will especially help recruit and retain young talent, as younger people are increasingly searching for meaningful, flexible work, and are, sometimes, ready to sacrifice salary or perks in its pursuit.
So far so good, right? While the customizable workplace undoubtedly has advantages for all involved, it can be tricky to foster. One key element is the managerial culture, which needs to be receptive and supportive of the idea, and set a good example. Similarly, workplace norms and social relationships play an important role: if acting in this way is not practiced widely, and if one’s colleagues aren’t buying in, it can be more challenging to get people on board. People tend to be set in their ways, at home and at work alike, so adapting work habits can act as a barrier.
Finally, labor regulations are deeply anchored in the traditional model, where work is performed at a determined physical site and within set hours. The new, individualized, model of work will require significant amendments to labor laws.
What makes this useful in a post-pandemic world?
COVID-19 has accelerated trends that have been around for some time, like remote work and flexible hours. Indeed, it has turned these practices from trends into common practice - and now that employees and job-seekers see that it’s possible to work from home and adapt one’s hours to fit their lifestyle, they will be looking for those features in their current and future positions, even as we ease out of the pandemic. This means that management needs to brainstorm ways to retain and recruit good people - and one way is through giving them a say in their career and offering a customizable workplace.
Managers need to realize that the customized workplace puts emphasis on “being,” not just on well-being initiatives- though both are important. “Being” refers to giving people a say in what happens, and accepting people as they are. This involves sharing the burden of organizing and management with them. While investing in employee wellbeing is also critical, management can’t forget the importance of being. A wellbeing program that ignores, or even seeks to distract from being, is set up to fail.
A customized workplace recognizes employees’ needs and seeks to adapt to them, while still ensuring that the needs of the organization are being met. Could this be the way forward for 21st century management?